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Google Cardboard review: The cheapest ticket to Mars

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Spreading the word

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That's precisely why Google Cardboard is so cool. It's an ambassador, a gateway to this mysterious world of virtual reality that a few folks keep talking about, but most of us haven't experienced. And it's packed into an approachable little package: light, cheap and goofy enough to be approachable.

I suppose it helps that the design is clever. Version 2.0 of Google Cardboard, introduced in late May at the company's I/O developer conference, simplifies the design of its predecessor -- a ridiculous statement, because we're talking about folded cardboard here. But it's true. The magnet that the original version used to interact with apps is replaced with a trigger that taps directly onto the screen. The new Cardboard is slightly larger to accommodate bigger phones, but it also folds down into a slightly more compact shape.

Download the Cardboard app or some of the many of the VR demos that are popping up on Google Play and Apple's App Store, pop in a phone, and you're ready to go. There's no sweaty headband to wrangle and no cables tying you down. It's light, cheap and works with the hardware you likely already own.

Did I mention it's cheap? With Google Expeditions, educators will have a relatively inexpensive way to take their classroom on a quick trip to the Grand Canyon, or the Louvre. You can send your friends to space, or send your kids to Mars. You can leave Cardboard on a shelf, like I have, and blow the mind of every friend who's a little curious about that little box with the Google logo on it .

You'll get what you pay for

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Scott Stein/CNET

The Cardboard experience will vary, based on your device. I tested the app on my Nexus 5, a Samsung Galaxy S6, a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and an iPhone 6. As expected, devices with higher-resolution displays are going to fare better. Some of my colleagues also experienced a bit of lag while they were looking around in various apps, which left some of them feeling a bit nauseous.

You also aren't getting anything remotely close to the experience you'll have with proper virtual reality hardware. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can both track your position in space, allowing you to truly walk around virtual landscapes, peering under and around objects. Samsung's Gear VR offers creature comforts like a focus wheel, so you can adjust the focus to your liking. And while I'm not keen strapping on a headset, adjustable bands will ensure that these headsets fit perfectly on your head. Headbands also leave your hands free to hold a controller or other input device, paving the way for more robust gaming experiences.

Gateway goggles

The Google Cardboard hardware isn't perfect. It always takes me a few seconds to focus on a phone's display when peering through the lenses, and the new trigger mechanism, while superior to the ViewMaster-esque magnet on the side of the first version, feels a little flimsy for my tastes -- I suspect that'll be the first part to break.

But conceptually, Google Cardboard is kind of perfect. Virtual reality, and all of its pitfalls and potential, is something that can't truly impress (or disappoint) until it's been experienced firsthand. Putting demonstration goggles for more robust VR gear in retail shops and hosting events will help bridge that gap, but there's no better marketing tool than hearing "You've got to try this" from a friend. Thirty bucks is a small price to pay for a taste of what's to come.

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